Violet Trace caused a scandal when she turned up at the funeral of 18-year-old Dorcas Manfred with a knife that she used to cut the dead woman’s face. Dorcas was dead at the hands of her lover, Violet’s husband, Joe, and 50-year-old Violet–soon to be dubbed Violent–guided by some other self pushed her way into the funeral and up to the coffin, ceasing her stabbing only when the ushers abandoned all their lessons about respecting their elders and dragged Violet out of the church.

In her introduction to Jazz, Toni Morrison says that she used the essence of jazz music to structure this novel:

I had written novels in which structure was designed to enhance meaning; here the structure would equal meaning. The challenge would be to expose and bury the artifice and to take practice beyond the rules. I didn’t want simply a musical background, or decorative references to it. I wanted the work to be a manifestation of the music’s intellect, sensuality, anarchy; its history, its range, and its modernity.

The novel is set in 1920s Harlem, and the story of Violet, Joe, and Dorcas is the unifying thread that ties the novel together, the main tune on which the composition is built. The narrator, an unidentified “I,” tells of these events from multiple angles, varying the theme a little each time. We get the history of these characters, going back for generations. We hear others’ commentaries on the characters’ actions. We read the narrator’s speculations about their motives, and we begin to wonder about the narrator’s own role in interpreting the tune to her own ends.

The City itself vamps underneath the narrative, calling to the characters when they live in the country and speaking to the characters’ hunger when they’re in the City. It urges them to act on their feelings, even drawing them to their own destruction, as it does for Dorcas, who yearns to break free from the strictures her aunt Alice has placed upon her. The narrator describes Dorcas’s hunger:

I’ve seen swollen fish, serenely blind, floating in the sky. Without eyes, but somehow directed, these airships swim below cloud foam and nobody can be turned away from the sight of them because it’s like watching a private dream. That was what her hunger was like: mesmerizing, directed, floating like a public secret just under the cloud cover. Alice Manfred had worked hard to privatize her niece, but she was no match for a City seeping music that begged and challenged each and every day. “Come,” it said. “Come and do wrong.” Even the grandmothers sweeping the stairs closed their eyes and held their heads back as they celebrated their sweet desolation.

I’m glad I read Morrison’s introduction and explanation of her technique because it helped me understand what she was doing in this sometimes chaotic and bewildering novel. However, it didn’t really help me enjoy it.  I almost put it down a couple of times, thinking I should try another Morrison instead, maybe coming back to this after I’ve read more of her work and gotten more accustomed to her voice. (Before this, I’d only read Beloved, which I thought was a very good book but didn’t quite fall in love with.)

However, every time I picked it up and read a few more pages, some fragment of the story would draw me in. The writing is great, and the central characters, with all their strange longings, made me keep reading. But then new characters would turn up, and their relationship to the story would be unclear, and I’d put the book down again. Ultimately, the novel’s structure kept me at a distance. I could hear the drums, but just couldn’t feel them strongly enough.

For those of you who’ve read more Morrison, is there another of her books that you’d recommend?

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16 Responses to Jazz

  1. Stefanie says:

    I read this years ago and had trouble with it too, it was good, but I just couldn’t love it like I wanted to. Have you read The Bluest Eye? That one took my breath away. I haven’t read Beloved yet I plan to one of these days.

    • Teresa says:

      Glad to know I’m not alone. I liked bits and pieces of it a lot, and I thought the characters were wonderful, but the style kept me at a distance.

  2. Jenny says:

    Like Stefanie, I’ve read The Bluest Eye, but I wasn’t as convinced by it as she was. I thought it was interesting, but had some structural problems. I’ve also read Song of Solomon, which I really did like a lot. But I’ll say that I found Beloved completely enthralling and moving, so it may be that Morrison just isn’t your bag? My next Morrison is actually going to be a nonfiction: Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.

    • Teresa says:

      It may very well be that Morrison isn’t for me, although I did like Beloved quite a lot. I want to give her at least one more try before I decide I’m done. I might try Song of Solomon next.

  3. jenn aka the picky girl says:

    Beloved is certainly not a book you love, but I will say that Sula is one of my absolute favorites. It’s part of what I wrote my MA thesis on. Central theme of mother love. Really interesting.

    Song of Solomon is also another great one. So much to talk about there.

    A Mercy is a real departure for her, and though people are very critical of it, I think it’s a really well-written novel, one that focuses on slavery – but how we enslave ourselves.

    Sorry this wasn’t a favorite, but I hope you find a Morrison you love and enjoy.

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks for all the suggestions. I’ve liked what I’ve read so far enough to give her at least one more try. I’m still hoping to be blown away as so many others have been.

  4. Sara says:

    Sorry to be redundant, but Song of Solomon is definitely my favorite, it is just so gorgeously good while being genuinely compelling too.

    • Teresa says:

      Redundant is not a bad thing in this case. Seeing so many people mention Song of Solomon confirms my instinct that it would be good for my next Morrison. So thank you!

  5. Oh, I actually really liked Jazz. I enjoyed the language. I thought it was reminiscent of jazz music.

    • Teresa says:

      I did like the language, but not enough to make up for the structure. (I’m also not a huge fan of jazz music, unless it’s more in the big-band style. The improvisational stuff is over my head.)

  6. Jenny says:

    I’m no Toni Morrison fan — Beloved was so bleak it made me feel sick to my stomach — but my friend Matt is a great advocate for her, and he always says I should read Song of Solomon if I want to love her. That is what everyone else says, which I find a compelling argument in its favor. One of these days I swear I will give Toni Morrison another shot.

    • Teresa says:

      The bleaker the better is usually the rule for me, so that wasn’t a problem with Beloved. Really, the only problem with Beloved is that I didn’t adore it and only liked it a lot, which is usually not a bad thing. From the comments here, it looks like Song of Solomon is a good one to try.

  7. Christy says:

    I was assigned to read Beloved in both high school and college. I can’t say that I “loved” it but I did think it was rather brilliant writing. The Bluest Eye was ok, but I remember thinking Tar Baby had a great ending.

    • Teresa says:

      The writing was very good, and it was here too. I’ll keep Tar Baby in mind, as well as The Bluest Eye, if Song of Solomon goes well.

  8. alenaslife says:

    This is my least favorite of all the Morrison novels, Song of Solomon being my favorite. I truly love her voice and style, especially the way she integrates folklore and mysticism into the everyday. I’m with jenn aka the picky girl that A Mercy was beautiful. I am so looking forward to the release of her latest book, Home, on Tuesday. I hope you will give her another try.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m encouraged that you say Jazz is your least favorite Morrison and that you concur with all the others who are voting for Song of Solomon. I like her writing a lot, even if this book wasn’t as good a fit for me as I’d hoped, so I will try her again.

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